The notion of equal justice, symbolized in the statement “justice is blind,” is a fundamental principal in American democracy. In a court of law, the judge has the supreme authority to enforce this standard and supervise justice.
However, some argue prosecutors have the most control over what takes place over a defendant’s effort to adjudicate criminal charges against them and how justice is served, more so even than judges do.
“A prosecuting attorney’s sworn duty is to protect the rights of victims and to seek justice for crimes committed,” said Terrell Threet, a prisoners’ rights advocate who was formerly incarcerated, in a phone interview with San Quentin News. “However, in order to achieve one objective, that does not mean neglecting the other, which is fairness to those being prosecuted.”
The authors of an opinion piece in the Brookings publication wrote, “The credibility of our justice system, the public’s faith in our institutions, and the stability of marginalized communities are directly tied to prosecutorial discretion.”
The June 2023 Brookings’ article, authored by Howard Henderson, Kiana Henley, and Tri Keah Henry, was titled, “Reforming our prosecutorial system is no longer just a proposition — it is an urgent imperative.”
Prosecutorial discretion, an obscure yet profoundly influential aspect of America’s criminal justice system, has had a spotlight shined on it by recent high profile indictments, the Brookings’ article said.
An increasingly troubling facet of prosecutorial decision-making, and a major concern for advocates of social justice, is the potential for misconduct in using such discretion. Such behavior can include a prosecutor withholding exculpatory evidence that would absolve a defendant of guilt — a practice prohibited under the Brady Act known as a “Brady violation.”
There is also the practice of unduly influencing witnesses or pushing them to exaggerate or even fabricate testimonies. Prosecutors may also blur lines in their statements by misleading a jury with false statements, according to the article. The latter is protected under the doctrine of absolute prosecutorial immunity.
Since 1989, 60% of exonerations in the United States have been linked to prosecutorial or police misconduct, the authors wrote.
“In an era when calls for justice transparency have reached the highest level, we can no longer overlook an element that silently sways the justice landscape, shaping case outcomes and sacrificing members of low-income, Black, and brown communities,” the authors of the article wrote.
Threet agreed, saying, “Where justice is concerned, the blindfold that connotes equality and fairness has left many of the system’s most impacted communities adopting the ideology that the criminal justice system is inherently White. [It’s] an ideology adopted by Black and Latinx communities.”
A fact that Threet says lends credence to this view is that Whites primarily run the country’s jails, prisons, and immigration detention facilities. “When society thinks about crime and punishment, it’s in terms of black and white. Not in the sense of Black and White people. Rather, ‘you commit the crime, you do the time,’” he said.
The authors noted that more than 90% of cases in federal and state courts are resolved through plea bargains, generally sidestepping the courtroom and judges, which further increases the power wielded by prosecutors. How they wield that power is shaping the landscape of justice across the country — for better or worse.
According to the authors of the Brookings’ article, the power held by prosecutors goes nearly unchecked. They added that within the judicial system, critics question whether this power is wielded too selectively and relentlessly, which serves to undermine the right to a fair trial, fosters mass incarceration, and erodes what is left of the public’s faith in equal justice.
Prosecutors have a large reach in America given that more than 2.3 million felonies and ten million misdemeanors are handled by 2,300 individual prosecutor’s offices each year, the authors note. These cases occur “within a labyrinthine legal framework, armed with the threat of lengthy mandatory-minimum sentences.”
“It is in the sanctum of the criminal justice system where true change in reforming an unjust system must begin,” said SQ resident Calvin Williams Jr. “Not in the legislative branches, not in government’s abundance of laws, but in the humanity phase of a prosecutor’s duty.
“Laws were enacted for punishing crime,” Williams said. “The end to that means does not need to be compounded by adding a less humane approach, such as prosecutorial misconduct, systemic racism in prosecutions, disproportionate sentencing of minorities, and outdated draconian-sentencing laws.”
Williams agreed with the authors that prosecutors’ authority often goes unchecked. He said justice for a crime committed, and punishment of the accused, can be accomplished with the intent to be a humanitarian, adding there can never be true justice if racism plays an integral role.
“There can never be true justice in and on an uneven playing field unless the more dominate team adheres to a strict code that entails recognizing that one’s position over the less dominate does not mean that total domination is the best approach,” Williams said.